Compliance for HR, Employee Relations, HR Management

Amber Heard vs Johnny Depp — just office gossip or does it matter to HR?

Nearly everyone by now is at last peripherally aware of the high-profile legal action that took place for actor Johnny Depp, whether you followed the trial, saw snippets of videos on TikTok, or just caught glimpses of a few memes. It centered around a heavy topic, but the trial itself generated more than a few laughable, and cringe-able, moments. Some say that some of the courtroom antics made too light of the allegations at hand, while others say they verified that there was no validity to the accusations.

So, it begs the question – does this trial have any serious implication to the workplace or is it just so much celebrity gossip? We would suggest it is worth following the outcome because there are several issues at play that would considerably impact a workplace investigation if this situation took place among co-workers in an organization.

Indulge us, if you will, and let’s imagine Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, rather than being Hollywood actors, are two members of your executive team. Then let’s plop this situation right into the middle of your boardroom (with some liberties). Consider:

  1. The relationship: While not employed by a single entity, the two have been co-workers together (the film The Rum Diary). They are, however, both members of the Screen Actors Guild, which could distribute sanctions against members. Anyway, let’s pretend that they are both your employees, and they get married while working for you. What do you do? How does this impact your organization? How does HR respond (or does it) if fighting enters the work relationship?
  2. The op-ed accusation: Now let’s suppose that instead of publishing an op-ed in a newspaper, Amber does a presentation on sexual harassment in the organization and states that she, too, has been harassed by an as-yet-unnamed colleague, and provides detail that points that finger to Johnny. She’s stated she’s been a victim of harassment but did not follow proper reporting. HR now knows and needs to investigate. How do you proceed? What do you communicate to both Amber and Johnny, and to everyone else who saw the presentation? Who do you put on the list of potential witnesses to interview? How long is this going to take?
  3. The investigation: Let’s say at this point, there have been some pretty strong allegations against your executive Johnny. Do you suspend him pending further investigation? How does this impact his career – in your organization and long term? Let’s take a step further and say that Amber states she already has an attorney – how does HR respond then?
  4. The investigation gets murky: Now let’s say that much like the trial, some things in the investigation are perhaps not adding up to a clear answer, and HR is not convicted that any wrongdoing has taken place on Johnny’s part. As of right now, he’s been suspended for quite a while (and has been unfriended and perhaps a bit vilified during the early days following the accusations). How does HR proceed?
  5. Retaliation: Your policy clearly states that there will be no retaliation against accusers, the accused, or witnesses. Amber made it clear that she received a number of threats during the trial, and TikTok was full of mocking videos. Regardless of who is determined to comes out right in the investigation, what does your organization do once someone faces retaliation?
  6. The verdict: We now know that the jury mostly favored Johnny, but Amber did get consideration as well. However, there are several ways an investigation could go:
    1. Amber is right: There was wrongdoing on the part of Johnny. He’s been suspended during this time, so now HR needs to determine long term consequences.
    2. But what if, Amber is wrong: It was a misunderstanding. Johnny’s been suspended all this time over something that proved to be invalid. How does HR and management bring him back into the workplace and redeem his role as an executive? Will there be legal action from Johnny against the organization for the damage to his career? How do you mediate the relationship between Amber and Johnny as they both keep their roles?
    3. And really what if, Amber made it up: This is truly the question of the day in the real-life trial. In your organization, though, what would you do? If you suspended an individual pending investigation, then found out the allegations were not only unfounded but intentionally fabricated to do harm? All the harassment prevention polices we write have a statement that there will be no retaliation against an accuser for claims made in good faith, but there will be consequences if someone intentionally and knowingly brings about false accusations. How does HR truly address this, though? The organization followed policy and procedure, but now they are considerable implications to doing what was right. The procedure may outline the tactical – Johnny comes back from suspension; Amber gets disciplined up to and including termination – but what about the reality of reputation and relationships?

Obviously, there are a lot more questions than answers when it comes to harassment investigations. They are never simple and never without the overwhelming knowledge that someone has been (or is going to be) significantly impacted by things that have happened in the workplace. There are so many tangents that need to be considered, and the best thing an organization can do is be prepared before anything happens:

  1. Have a policy in place clearly stating the organization’s stance against all harassment, including sexual harassment, discrimination, and bullying.
  2. Have a procedure and response prepared should you get a complaint of harassment.
  3. Understand the right (and wrong) way to continue an investigation.
  4. Know who to call. Very often it is best to bring in a third party to handle your investigations. When we come in to address these situations, we are able to do so with no pre-conceived notions of individuals, no history, no bias. It’s much easier to listen and sort out the facts without having any emotional ties to the individuals. And as an added bonus, we get to leave – this means that if anyone is upset or embarrassed by having to go through interviews, they don’t have to work with us every day like they do their manager or even their HR professional.

No investigation is ever easy or pleasant, but they must be done. And they must be done timely, professionally, and efficiently. If your organization finds itself in a situation in which you have to investigate allegations of an employee’s behavior, please know that HR Affiliates is here to help.


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